‘Fake’ charges show dark side of soaring Indian art appetite

‘Fake’ charges show dark side of soaring Indian art appetite

New Delhi/Kolkata/Santiniketan: A current exhibition of 20 bronze sculptures at New Delhi’s Gallery Espace is believed to be the largest assembly of previously unseen work by Bengali artist Somnath Hore, and was heralded as unprecedented by many in the art world.

A week after the opening of the show titled “Agony and Ecstasy", the wife and daughter of Hore, who died last year at the age of 82, say that many, if not all, of the pieces are fakes. The original of at least one, said his daughter, is actually in her possession in Santiniketan, the university town and artistic centre of West Bengal.

“We are sure that the sculptures are not real," said Chandana Hore, 41, an artist herself. She has not seen the exhibit but was sent a catalogue by a friend. “At least one of the pieces is definitely fake, because we have the original… Of the rest, three look familiar, but the rest are complete fabrications."

But the gallery said it is convinced of both the lineage and authenticity of the works, which it says are mostly from a private collection, were made in the 1980s and explore themes such as poverty, motherhood and survival.

“We would not be showing them, documenting them in such a catalogue and putting them on view if we didn’t think they were," said Arjun Sawhney, a spokesman for Renu Modi, owner of Espace (pronouned es-spas). “We are absolutely confident that (the works) are real."

Mint asked two unrelated art experts for their opinion on the works at Espace—Neville Tulli, the chairman of Osian’s Connoisseurs of Art Pvt. Ltd, who has sold Hore’s work through his auction house, and Naveen Kishore, the Kolkata-based publisher of Seagull Books Pvt. Ltd, who was a friend of Hore’s and arranged a major exhibition in 1994 of 54 of Hore’s works—and both raised questions of authenticity after looking at pictures. They said they felt that at least some of the sculptures were fake—likely recast from the original wax models by someone familiar with Hore’s work.

The conflict and uncertainty—it may be months before the question of authenticity is settled, if at all—underscores a critical problem in India’s booming art industry.

A 1994 photo of sculptor Somnath Hore. His pieces are characterized by stylized faces and the flattened planes for the body, instead of voluminous

Ella Datta, a well-regarded art critic and columnist, wrote the introduction to the catalogue for Espace. On Sunday, she said that she was convinced of the sculptures’ originality. Datta said that she had handled and studied all the works herself and felt that at least two-thirds were “beautiful, and they had the stylistic features of a Somnath Hore— the faces are stylized, the flattened planes for the body, instead of voluminous." The rest of the pieces were perhaps not Hore’s best work, she said, but she wouldn’t call them fake.

But, increasingly, allegations of fraud have swirled around art sales in India for a while now, says Datta, and it reflects the need for a more robust system of checks.

“It’s all been very informal for such a long time, and now that the demand for good works of art have grown, issues like these are bound to come up," said Datta. “We still don’t have sufficient independent authorities to evaluate and pronounce on the quality." (Datta is an occasional contributor to Mint’s weekend magazine, Lounge).

The show at Espace has the first pieces to appear for sale since Sotheby’s Holdings Inc. auctioned a small sculpture of Hore’s in 2005 for about $41,000 (about Rs17.92 lakh then). Hore’s sculptures have increased in value over the years and his smaller pieces sell for as much Rs15 lakh, which would peg the value of the entire Espace exhibition at about Rs2 crore.

But, regardless of the legality of the situation—it is not clear if the gallery has sold any of the works in the past few days, and during a visit to the gallery, a staff member said there was no price list—the artist community in New Delhi and elsewhere has been following the situation closely.

Modi, who has been promiment in the Delhi art scene for almost 20 years, deferred questions to her spokesman, Sawhney, who, in turn, said the gallery would issue a statement on Monday. Espace has “all the documentation, duly notarized, which we can make available," Sawhney said. “We are a credible, highly reputed gallery, and we see no reason why we should be answering these questions."

Sawhney also said Espace conducted “minute due diligence" and collecting notarized affidavits from the owners of the pieces, whom he declined to name.

Kishore, publisher of Seagull Books, said the works in question closely mimick Hore’s style, but having owned and displayed Hore’s work for years, he could spot obvious flaws.

“The pieces that I have looked at are all rubbish, and there is no way that Mr. Hore did those," said Kishore, after examining several photographs that Mint took at Espace. “There are three pieces that look familiar, but mostly, they are non-existent work."

Kishore and Tulli said they based their assessments on the quality of the patina, the outer layers of the sculptures, which were smoother and less textured than those on Hore’s previous works. They felt the expressions on the faces were less detailed. Hore’s daughter says that the distinctive ears on one of the sculptures did not match her father’s style, which were simpler.

Hore’s work has never been exhaustively catalogued, nor has there been any effort by the family or an arts foundation to create a single record of all the work he produced, which also includes many paintings. In September 2002, Hore himself was dismayed over the fact that fakes of his works had surfaced at auctions in Mumbai and New Delhi. His daughter says he paid for a small advertisement in major newspapers, including The Times of India, Anandabazar Patrika and The Statesman, warning fans and collectors of his works that his sculptures were being faked, and asking them to contact him to verify the authenticity of the work before buying it.

Now that he has died, “the best thing is to let the family that are alive and kicking, and are completely familiar with his work, to judge them," said Kishore. “They’re the best people to comment on the work."

The gallery pieces were mostly sourced from a single collector, Sugato Majumdar, a distant family member of Hore’s who was representing his mother and two aunts, said Espace’s Sawhney. Those sculptures were gifts from Hore, which explains why people intimate with Hore’s work would be unfamiliar with these works, he said. “Without our knowledge, our father would not have gifted anybody these sculptures," said Chandana Hore, who reviewed her father’s records at Mint’s request. “I see no record of him ever having gifted anything to Sugato."

Majumdar did not respond to several phone calls and texts to a cellphone number.

Tulli, who spends a lot of his time sourcing and authenticating artworks, said he felt it was possible that Modi, the Gallery Espace’s owner, was duped.

“Ms Modi and her galleries are people of integrity and have done their work with transparency," he said. AfterMint met him on Sunday, Tulli said he had called Modi about the pieces. “I’m convinced that there’s no intent to defraud.?She’s done all that she can do, but always, genuine mistakes are done by anyone."

For Hore’s family, especially his wife, Reba, who is now 82, the possible association of fake works with Hore’s name on them is a painful thought, regardless of the reasons. “This work has not been done by Somnath, and it should not be displayed with his name," said Reba. “Any of the original wo-rks had inner vibrations of an artist, but the fakes are dead, they don’t have that touch."

Many in the small and tight-knit art community in Delhi say they are reminded of an auction last year, when a painting purported to be by Bikash Bhattacharjee was revealed to be a fake just as the bidding hit Rs30 lakh. “Bikash was my guru," said Sanjay Bhattacharyya, also a famous painter and photographer, who raised the alarm about the fake.?“And?if I see in front of me (a painting) that is not his at all, and people are bidding for it, I cannot let it continue."

In the media frenzy that followed, it never became clear where the painting had come from?and?how?was?it?allowed in-to the auction. But Bhattacharyya remembers it as a traumatic time, in which he also learned a lesson. “It was a terrible experience," he said. “I thought that artists were united,?and?in?broad daylight, when that painting came in, nobody did anything to stop it."

At Espace, the guest book is filled with visitors’ impressions of the works, which they said they found beautiful and moving.

“Sometimes, what happens is that even if people do a copy, they can be quite beautiful," said Jagdish Chander, a New Delhi artist who is a fan of Hore’s work. He was one of those visitors who signed the guest book. “If they were fake, they were really well done."

Rajdeep Datta Roy in Kolkata and Maitreyee Handique in New Delhi contributed to this story.